Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (1962)

Directed by low-budget master Albert Zugsmith, Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962) bears only the vaguest resemblance to Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 autobiographical account of the same name. Actually, very little opium use takes place in the film, but the one extended sequence of drug-induced nightmare more or less justifies the title. Touted by Warner Archive as “sex, drugs, and Vincent Price!” this is a fun cult horror classic for fans of the iconic star, although it certainly swims pretty deep in Orientalist hysteria.

Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, the ostensible descendent of Thomas. Gilbert is a mysterious Westerner with a penchant for Asian philosophy, and in 19th century Chinatown he involves himself in a dangerous tong war fueled by opium and a secretive sex trade. Gilbert intends to stop the slave auctions where wealthy Chinese men buy “wives” kidnapped from Asian countries, but he finds himself powerfully attracted to Ruby Low (Linda Ho), an ambitious woman who uses the auctions to her own advantage.

Price himself doesn’t disappoint, although he is relatively reserved compared to many of his better-known roles. His rich, deep voice suits the hypnotic voiceover well, and he has some excellent scenes of action and peril. Most of his leading ladies are attractive if not especially memorable, but tiny Yvonne Moray steals the picture from Price every time she appears. A veteran of The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), Moray gets the movie’s best lines, and her scenes are certainly the funniest and most interesting of the whole picture. Her character, a “pretty Chinese midget,” is not one you’ll find in many other films, and really I think she makes the movie with her huge personality packed into a pint-sized body.

Price’s Gilbert is the only Western character we see in most of the film, although he does meet up with a freeloading sailor in the opium den. The Asian characters, not surprisingly, conform to Orientalist stereotypes, and the slave auction ultimately plays out as an erotic, exotic floor show, with plenty of gyrating body parts and scantily clad girls. Zugsmith made his reputation as a maker of exploitation films, so none of this will come as a shock if you know the genre and its conventions. Just don’t go into it looking for anything progressive in terms of racial or sexual images.

Albert Zugsmith also directed Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1964), and Violated! (1974), but he deserves more serious credit as the producer of Written on the Wind (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Orson Welles’ legendary noir thriller, Touch of Evil (1958). For more of Vincent Price’s work from this period, check out Roger Corman horror classics like Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). Confessions of an Opium Eater is currently available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Disclaimer: Warner Archive has provided a review copy of this film free of charge to the reviewer. The reviewer makes no promise of a positive or negative review to any studio based on the receipt of review copies or any other material goods.

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